Bikes for disaster relief: Meet the Bike Scouts
They call themselves the Bike Scouts, a group of volunteer bicycle messengers dotted around the Philippines that aid those in need. When natural disasters strike, the Bike Scouts deliver medicine and other supplies to those affected, often getting into the worst-hit regions before aircraft and trucks are able to. As founder Myles Delfin writes, Bike Scouts was created with the goal of making the world a better place, thanks to the help of the humble bicycle.
The time on my bicycle computer read 7:07 in the evening, and ahead of us was another 30 kilometres of riding up to a highway on a mountain ridge where the air was usually significantly cooler than in the city of Manila, the capital of the Philippines. Normally, it would have been a relaxing evening ride with the promise of a piping-hot bowl of Bulalô* in Tagaytay City, a popular tourist town overlooking Taal Volcano in Batangas province.
Except, this wasn’t a normal ride. There was nobody else on the pitch black road and volcanic ash was falling from the sky like gray-colored snow. We rode past empty houses and ahead of us was an ominous-looking pillar of pyroclastic material towering 14 kilometres in the night sky from an ongoing eruption of Taal Volcano.
That night, we were riding through narrow country roads to avoid police roadblocks so we could deliver a package of N95 facemasks, medicines, and a portable nebulizer. It was a necessary delivery because the people that requested it were trapped inside the danger zone and could no longer wait for better conditions to get access to critical medicine for asthma, diabetes and high blood pressure. There was also a person who needed medicine for post-heart-surgery care.
The package of facemasks was for the ash fall that was causing respiratory problems for children in make-shift evacuation centers in the hillside communities we were going to pass through.
“Are you still alive?” said a text message we received from our project coordinator back in San Pedro, Laguna. Then, came another text message that said “stop posting pictures and keep moving!” We were trying to move as fast as we could, of course, but we were having a hard time breathing through the facemasks we had to wear while riding up and down endless hills.
We call ourselves Bike Scouts, and we work as volunteer bicycle messengers for disaster response and social good. Bike Scouts started in 2013 when seven bicycle messenger teams spent four months on the islands of Samar and Leyte in the Visayas region of the Philippine archipelago. We rode our bicycles in the immediate aftermath of Typhoon Yolanda to access places that were isolated by the storm.
Typhoon Yolanda (also known as Typhoon Haiyan) was a Category 5 typhoon that left more than 6,000 people dead and 1,771 missing. Our work was to gather disaster data, collect personal messages from survivors, and deliver critical emergency supplies at a time when most bridges were destroyed, roads were buried by debris up to 15 feet (4.5 metres) high, and there were no communications, fuel, or motorized vehicles.
The most difficult thing to handle was the emotions of people when they realized we were there to help. It’s one thing to see the aftermath of natural disasters in the news, but nothing prepares you for the experience of actually being there and hearing people’s voices fail when they recall how they’ve lost their entire family to the storm.
Most people could not believe that help would arrive by bicycle, that bicycles could carry so much water, food, medicine, IV fluid, solar lamps, and tents. But the thing that sparked so much hope in people was the fact that after we unloaded our cargo we would fill our bags with their messages for their loved ones.
We collected all kinds of letters and took countless pictures of people holding their messages so that their families could pick them out and identify them easily on platforms like Google Person Finder. In some cases, we called their families directly and read the message to them.
In one case, the woman who picked up the phone was so overcome with happiness that she dropped the telephone and forgot that we were still on the line. We could hear her and her family crying and laughing after finding out that their brother was safe in an evacuation camp. The message we delivered to them that day simply said “please don’t worry about me anymore, I’m still alive.”
It’s probably hard to imagine how a bicycle could accomplish so much in such devastated areas. It’s just a simple machine with two wheels and pedals, after all. But bicycles are a very resilient form of mobility — one can ride them over almost any terrain and they’re very easy to fix and maintain. Because of the access they provide, bicycles are able to deliver a sense of hope to people who no longer even expect to be found.
In the aftermath of Typhoon Yolanda, local people on bicycles rode to the farthest villages to help long before aircraft, all-terrain vehicles, and relief trucks could find them.
The Bike Scouts have been riding into storms, volcanic eruptions, and everything in between for the past six years, and the best thing that happened is that people from many different places have signed-up to become a community that serves as a platform to do positive things.
When the Bike Scouts organized community libraries for schools in isolated places, for example, Bike Scouts in Canada sent countless boxes of high-quality books and magazines, and whenever there are storms or floods there’s never a lack of food, water, medicines, and essential supplies that are sent to be delivered directly to the people that need them.
On Christmas Eve in 2019, Typhoon Phanfone made landfall in the Philippine island of Samar, and from the moment it reached land to the time it left the country, different Bike Scouts teams from places along its path provided a real-time account of what was happening on the ground. Even now, in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the same kind of community spirit allows the Bike Scouts to do things that help give people a reason to have hope.
Bike Scouts from across the Philippines have been lending their bicycles to doctors, nurses, and other frontline workers who are struggling to get to hospitals because of the ban on public transport and other vehicles during the lockdown. And because a lot of people have lost their source of income, the Bike Scouts have been collecting and delivering essential supplies to those that no longer have other options for their daily needs.
Bike Scouts is a small idea that dared to take on a big problem. It started with bicycles bringing hope to people in the aftermath of the most powerful typhoon to make landfall in human history, and from there it grew into a community where people ride out at midnight on Christmas Eve to deliver presents to homeless children, and lend their bicycles to complete strangers that work on the frontlines of a global pandemic.
The Bike Scouts is a small community initiative that simply wanted to know how ordinary people can help change the world for the better, and we learned that riding a bicycle is a good start.
*Bulalô is a beef dish from the Philippines. It is a light colored soup that is made by cooking beef shanks and bone marrow until the collagen and fat has melted into the clear broth. It typically includes leafy vegetables, corn on the cob, scallions, onions, garlic, ginger, and fish sauce.
About the author
Myles Delfin describes himself as “a creative, adventurer, optimist, and a doer of things”. He’s worked as a creative professional in the design and advertising industry for most of his professional life, handling both start-up businesses and multi-national companies. Most recently, he has been applying his creative skills to problem-solve real-world challenges that can greatly benefit from design thinking.